Like a summer blockbuster, this episode is full of thrills--magnets that turn off a reporter's ability to speak; indestructible unmanned aerial vehicles; and more...
Background on this week's stories:
#1. TMS: The brain's mute button
The Michael Bay Verizon FiOS Commercial we're parodying is all over YouTube.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) isn't only used to turn off the speech center of the brain, as depicted in the video accompanying the Daily Telegraph article that John highlights in this episode—it's also useful in therapeutic contexts. For example, it can be used to treat depression.
Naturally, Gawker Media sci-fi blog Io9 does its best to imagine the most dystopian way this treatment could possibly be used. The psychiatrist behind Corpus Callosum recently posted a good roundup of what's new in TMS.
#2. UASs head into the storm
The UAS (aka Unmanned Aerial System*) most familiar to the public has to be the "Predator drone" which is a relatively large, powerful aircraft that couldn't be more different from the UAS being deployed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study hurricanes.
(*According to Phil Hall of NOAA, people in the business prefer the term UAS, or Unmanned Aerial System, to the more commonly used term "drone".)
NOAA's UAS, which is built by a French company called Aerosonde, has a wingspan of just nine feet (2.7 meters), weighs 32 pounds (14.5 kilograms) when fully fueled, can fly for an hour on a gallon (3.8 liters) of fuel, and is made out of Kevlar and carbon fiber.
According to Joe Cione, head of NOAA's hurricane-focused UAS project, the plane has survived winds so severe that its GPS recorded a sudden ascent of a thousand feet (300 meters) and a subsequent descent of the same distance "inside four minutes".
Hobbyists interested in building their own UASs should check out DIY Drones, the community started by Wired editor in chief, Chris Anderson.
#3. Plastic bag problem: solved?
Plastic bags are a big problem—big enough to inspire a recent nationwide ban in China, as our man-on-the scene, SciAm environmental correspondent David Biello, recently discovered. That's great, but it's only a start, considering that worldwide, humans consume somewhere between 500 million and a trillion plastic bags per year.
That's why a teen's recent isolation of microbes capable of breaking down these plastic bags in as few as three months is no small matter, and no less impressive because it was "merely" a science fair project.
#4. Seven minutes of terror
(Please note: we shot this episode nearly two weeks ago and so mention the Phoenix Mars landing as "last week." Phoenix touched down on Sunday May 25.)
NASA's Mars Phoenix mission is the most exciting thing to hit the Red Planet since the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Although this lander won't be going anywhere—it's a stationary platform—it will be using its long sampling arm to drill into the icy and/or rocky surface beneath it. (As of this writing, no confirmed water ice yet, but the possibility remains).
NASA's PR machine is in fine form on this mission, churning out a bevy of cool animations of what the probe has been up to, photos of the probe itself, and a regularly updated microblog of the mission on the microblogging site, Twitter.